By Cara Hogan
SANDOWN — Stacey Guptill is always waiting for a call that a seal is stranded on a beach and needs her help.
Guptill, 39, of Sandown is a field volunteer for the Marine Animal Stranding Hotline along the New Hampshire coastline. The Haverhill native is one of 100 volunteers for the New England Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program that helps wildlife from Maine to Cape Cod, according to New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse.
"We pioneered the idea of marine rescue in 1968," he said, "We rescue seals, porpoises, turtles and even whales. Right now, we have a couple dozen sea turtles in rehab that were stranded because of hypothermia in the fall."
Since legislation in the 1970s protected seals from hunting, the population has increased and led to more sightings of harbor and harp seals along the New England coastline.
There are about two dozen hotline volunteers in New Hampshire. Guptill alone has responded to about 19 calls in the past year, all for seals.
"They send me the location, and I go and assess the situation," she said. "Usually, there's a lot of people around and I ask them to step back because they don't know they're supposed to be 150 feet away from the species. It stresses the animal out."
Guptill is not a marine biologist, but the aquarium staff trained her to look for specific signs that a seal or other wildlife may need help.
"You watch the breathing, look for signs of stress or if there's any obvious wounds," she said. "If I see anything, I go and call the aquarium and they send an expert out to address it."
The aquarium's rehabilitation center no longer treats seals because they are focused on endangered sea turtles. But if a seal is injured or ill, the aquarium will pick it up and send it to the marine science program at the University of New England Biddeford.
"As part of their marine science program, they rehabilitate a lot of seals," LaCasse said. "We'll send an injured seal to them. It may have some entanglement in fishing gear, maybe some cuts from getting in a fight, or it will have flu or cold-like symptoms."
But more often, volunteers like Guptill spend more time keeping seals safe from the curious public than rescuing animals in need.
"People are excited when they spot a seal," she said. "It's fine to watch them, but stay away. They're not being cute. Don't feed an animal, don't cover it with a towel, don't try to pick it up and put it back in the ocean. This is a wild animal."
Adult seals can range from 200 to 300 pounds and can become aggressive if approached. One winter, a harp seal crossed the dunes in Seabrook into the back yard of a condominium, LaCasse said. A woman tried to pick up the seal and it tried to bite her.
Often the aquarium staff has to relocate a seal that is resting on a crowded beach, too close to large numbers of people. To move a seal, they slowly herd it into a large plastic dog kennel, then let it loose again in a quieter location.
Residents who call the hotline spot seals on local beaches and are worried they may be injured. More often, experts said, the animals are only resting.
"A lot people don't know that seals actually rest on the beach; they don't need to be in the water all the time," Guptill said. "They're not always injured, but you don't know."
But she encourages people to call with any concerns and advises local residents who live on the beach to program the hotline number into their phone.
LaCasse said the aquarium is always looking for more volunteers who would like to help.
"It's not an easy job, but it's a rewarding job for the right person," he said.
Guptill said she loves it.
"I haven't saved an animal's life yet," she said. "The most gratifying thing is being able to be there with a live animal and help."
For more information about the Marine Animal Stranding Hotline, visit neaq.org.
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